The Iyengar Yoga Centre of Victoria hosts an annual end-of-summer student intensive, led by Lauren Cox and Ty Chandler. In this piece I explore connections between my work as a performer and my yoga practice.
An email from Lauren. She has noticed I am not registered for the intensive. Am I in town? Can I join them? I would be missed, etc.
I know how persuasive Lauren is. In my reply, I try to back her off: Can’t handle the intensive. Just back after a year on the road. Worn out. Been sick. And I haven’t been doing yoga. All over three continents, no yoga for 12 months. No classes, no workshops, no down dog or up dog or inversions. Nada.
Lauren is unfazed. “It sounds like you need the intensive.” In her wisdom, she encourages me to sign up and just take it easy. “Practice ahimsa,” she counsels.
So I sign up (Did I mention persuasive?) with ahimsa as my guide. Non-harming. Not overdoing it. I sit on the mat on Monday morning with a mix of caution and curiosity. I’ve come and gone from formal practice before; still, I wonder what it will be like this time to practice after a full year off.
I discover it is both easy and challenging. Easy because the poses are like old friends; challenging because my relationship with each one has shifted. (Was tadassana always this complicated??) I try not to push myself, and come out of poses early when I need to. But as the week progresses, and as I’ve continued classes in the weeks since the intensive, I am surprised that although I have lost ground, I am not as rusty as I expected. Why didn’t this year of “no yoga” cost me more in strength, flexibility, stamina and focus?
There are some logical answers. A familiarity with yoga after many years of practice (albeit erratic practice). A lifestyle that includes a lot of movement. A job – performing – that requires attention to how I stand and move. Even demons like scoliosis and joint problems encourage moment-to-moment attention to bones and muscles, tendons and fascia.
All of these make sense. But there is paradoxical piece that I’ve learned from performing. At the end of every tour, I tell myself This time, I’ll rehearse and keep fresh between tours. Then I spend my off-tour time sleeping, sitting in a daze in the coffee shop, reading novels, watching movies, going to dances, and hanging out with people who make me laugh. I need this time to re-charge, and eventually I turn to my work. But it’s the administrative tasks that eat my time between tours. In the end, I don’t rehearse.
So I go out on the next tour in a state of mild terror, convinced I’ll have lost the knack, or forgotten the material. But when I get on stage, new things pop up seemingly out of nowhere. A character I’ve been playing for years is suddenly more vivid. I use the stage differently. I forget a scene, and discover that the story is fine without it.
Over the years, I have come to accept this cycle. Maybe while I immerse myself in movies and novels, I am studying characters and plotlines, and while I’m sitting in the coffee shop, I’m watching movement and body language. Certainly dancing, visiting and laughing tune my spirit. It takes a leap of faith to trust this process, but there is something beautiful about a pause in practice, at least in this context.
At the Intensive, I ponder pauses in the context of yoga. They fit nicely with ahimsa: a pause between asanas can be a necessary rest. Pausing during the pose – holding the pose – can be the key to finding stillness, “the repose in the pose.” Pauses are built into pranayama, where they come between “sips” in an inhalation. There is a lot to pausing in yoga, as it turns out.
Lest there be any confusion, I do not advocate stopping one’s yoga practice for a year. But when pauses in our practice arise, it is worth exploring them. Perhaps taking a break from actively Doing Yoga can nudge us towards a subtler form of practice. Maybe we learn to bring the essence of the asanas into our lives; embody the teachings; breathe awareness into the corners of everyday life. Then, after some weeks or years, a wise and persuasive angel invites us back to the mat, and we make a choice. For me, the intensive was what I needed to re-boot my practice. I’m glad that I can follow up by taking classes for a few weeks before my next tour. Who knows – I might even do some rehearsing!